Who could be against innovation? Enterprises embrace it as
an indispensable ingredient of adaptation and growth, a key to
overcoming uncertainty and competition and to ensuring
survivability. Advocates often take their cues from The
Innovators Dilemma, by Harvard Business School
professor Clayton Christensen.
In the June 23, 2014, issue of the New Yorker, Jill Lepore, an American history professor
at Harvard, lambasted the 1997 book and set off a summer of
discontent in innovation-land. Her article, The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of
Innovation Gets Wrong, picked apart the widely
accepted theory of disruptive innovation that
successful, established companies can be blindsided by
seemingly inferior products from inventive entrepreneurs
and the implication, as she presented it, that if an incumbent
doesnt disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it
must be because it didnt disrupt.
Lepore contended that Christensen made circular
arguments, disregarded case examples that didnt fit
his theory and failed to prove that it is predictive.
Disruptive innovation is a theory of why businesses fail.
It is not more than that, she concluded.
Christensen did not lack for defenders. His work is a rare
example of rigorous research that finds its way into
mainstream business, guiding managers to make day-to-day
decisions, said Howard Yu, professor of strategic
management at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Irving Wladawsky-Berger, retired vice president of strategy
and innovation at IBM, agreed with Lepore that the concept
of disruption has been overused and misused in business
but was taken aback by her attack on a useful
organizing framework for discussing the creative-destruction
aspects of innovation.
Christensen criticized Lepore for breaking rules
of scholarship by ignoring sequels to The
Innovators Dilemma and subsequent research that
addressed her complaints and for being mean. The
contretemps offered more drama and played out more publicly
than the typical academic debate. But it wasnt much more
than that. The corporate innovation beat goes on, and
Christensens is hardly the only textbook.
Innovation is so entrenched in business strategies because
there is more to it than the cycles of disruptive
entrepreneurism that Christensen documented in the 1990s. The
popular conception of freewheeling visionaries launching
start-ups in garages distorts the reality of how disciplined,
systematic and scientific the practice and pursuit of
innovation have become.
Of course, good intentions do not guarantee best execution.
Innovation requires patience and tolerance of failure
qualities that can go against the grain of profit-driven
cultures. Art and serendipity at times will trump hard science
and deep pockets.
Firms face such realities in organizing for innovation, and
it is anything but haphazard. In a July webinar sponsored by the
Massachusetts Institute of Technologys System Design and
Management program, Mona Vernon, vice president of Thomson
Reuterss Data Innovation Lab, said suggestion boxes and
other loosely coordinated attempts to rally creativity result
in too much noise, too little value. She advocated
applying structured and replicable system architecture
principles to innovation management and recommended the open
innovation methodology championed by University of California
adjunct professor Henry Chesbrough and a book he co-edited,
Open Innovation: Researching a New
Corporate innovation is not new, Vernon pointed
out. Whats new are fast-paced environments,
marketplace complexity and technological change that have made
innovation a CEO concern: Initiatives are driven from the
Steve Uban, a director of the Chicago-based Product Development and
Management Association, endorses a portfolio- and
risk-based approach to innovation, analogous to investment
portfolio management. Uban heads the PDMA standards committee,
which recently developed a standard it describes as
a disciplined structure in which to drive successful and
meaningful product development within any sized
Uban brushes the Christensen controversy aside, saying:
First you have to agree on what youre talking about
what are the attributes of radical or disruptive
innovation? Some say it should be untethered, but the process
works best when it is managed.
In consulting firm PwCs annual CEO survey, published in
January, a plurality of 35 percent identified product and
service innovation as their main growth opportunity. PwC said
the successful companies are industrializing
innovation, adopting repeatable and scalable processes
and putting disciplined innovation techniques in